diamond geezer

 Thursday, November 03, 2005

5/11: Gunpowder
Just 36 barrels of gunpowder, cunningly concealed beneath the Houses of Parliament, could very easily have changed the course of history. Even half that amount would have been sufficient to destroy the buildings above and, at the same time, all of Britain's top royalty, nobility and church leaders. In the end, of course, Guy Fawkes was discovered before he could light the fuse, and there are some who reckon his gunpowder was so far past its use-by-date that it wouldn't have gone off anyway. But, how exactly do you make gunpowder? Earlier this year I took a trip to a secret establishment on the outskirts of north London where I met up with some shadowy men who explained everything. No doubt my report below contravenes new Government legislation on the incitement of terrorism but, given that you've already downloaded it, you might as well read on...

Royal Gunpowder Mills, Waltham Abbey

Britain's largest gunpowder factory is, or rather was, located in the upper Lea Valley (roughly where the Greenwich meridian crosses the M25). The factory started out peacefully as a few water mills run by monks from nearby Waltham Abbey, but was converted to gunpowder production in the late 17th century when we went to war with the Dutch. That's slightly too late to have provided the gunpowder used by Guy Fawkes, but the process would have been very similar. Three main ingredients were required - 75% saltpetre (known to chemistry teachers as potassium nitrate), 15% sulphur and 10% charcoal. Mix them properly, and extremely carefully, and you have a recipe for destruction. By 1735 these were 'the largest and compleatest works in Great Britain', and they were snapped up by the Crown a few decades later. Explosives from the Royal Gunpowder Mills were instrumental in fighting the Napoleonic Wars, the Crimean War and the Boer War, and the factory and its workforce expanded enormously. The Mills' heyday was the First World War, during which hundreds of tons of Cordite were produced every week for use in the trenches of northern Europe. And that's when my great grandfather James worked here, as a 'Danger House Man' (whatever that was), so I had an extra special interest in going along to take a look.

Today the Royal Gunpowder Mills are one of those wonderfully semi-amateur museums run by volunteers with a passion for restoring our industrial heritage. In this case I suspect the place has attracted men who like playing with guns and blowing things up, but in a nice way. They've certainly got a fantastic (and enormous) site to play with. There are acres of woodland, with decaying industrial relics scattered amongst the trees (and plenty of wildlife frolicking inbetween). There are several long buildings formerly used as explosives factories (with very thick end walls so that, if the gunpowder ever blew up, the buildings next door didn't take the full force). There's an intricate network of canals and rivers (and yes, there is a steam railway in there somewhere too, just because these places always have one). Where else could you see a 'nitroglycerine nitrating house', or a 'guncotton drying stove', or even a rare Victorian cast iron aqueduct? Only here, I suspect.

The ladies selling tickets at the entrance were very pleased to see me, maybe because they hadn't been over-stretched by visitors that morning. But there were enough of us to fill the land train, essentially a big trailer on the back of a tractor, which took us on a guided tour of the less accessible parts of the site. In one of the old buildings, until recently a government laboratory, a white-coated 'scientist' took pleasure in explaining to the occasional visitor how rockets work. In another small room the walls were lined with 200 historic guns and rifles, each lovingly polished, and if you asked the curator nicely he'd let you go outside and fire blanks. And down on the central green a distinguished old gentleman was trying hard to persuade a young boy that the site offered many exciting attractions for modern youth, but I suspect you had to be a certain sort of child to enjoy the experience.

But I was really here at the Gunpowder Mills for their special Gunpowder Plot weekend (held, conveniently, back in September before the site closed down for the winter). The fine folk of Sir Marmaduke Rawdon's Regiment of Foote (a division of the English Civil War Society) were present to re-enact "Catesby's Last Stand" - a dramatic recreation the final moments of the doomed plotters. In practice this meant a bunch of bank managers, civil servants and primary school teachers all dressed up in period Stuart costume, strutting up and down on the central lawn wielding period weaponry and exclaiming loudly in ye olde English. Some of the pikesmen (and women) got to march about a bit, but the people having the most fun were those allowed to run amok with finely choreographed musket fire.

Bit of history: Following the discovery of the Gunpowder Plot, Thomas Catesby and the remaining conspirators made their escape from London by riding northwestward towards the Welsh Marches (map). Tired, wet and bedraggled they arrived at Holbeach House in Staffordshire on the evening of 7th November 1605 where, rather stupidly, they left their sodden ammunition in front of a log fire to dry out. Oops. The resulting explosion injured several of the plotters, who were therefore not at their best the following morning when the local sheriff came by to round them up. One single government bullet killed both Catesby and Thomas Percy, which was a bit of luck, and the surviving conspirators were then easily captured and taken back to London to await trial and execution.

A bit of a sorry mess all round really, but a fantastic tale for re-enactment purposes. The battle action unfolded with all due spectacle. Everybody shouted where necessary and fell over as appropriate. The man at the back with the big red flag carried his big red flag impeccably. The special effects team relished their opportunity to waft smoke across the Essex countryside. The weekend wenches waved from the sidelines. The narrator tried his best to tell us what was going on (even though his microphone kept cutting out and he had to keep repeating everything... repeating everything). And the bloke playing Catesby hammed up his role magnificently, dying at the finale with a loud dramatic flourish. Plot defeated.

I wouldn't want to watch this sort of stuff every weekend (let alone take part), but the experience really did bring the past alive. I'm sure the other spectators would agree with me, even if we were heavily outnumbered by the actors and all their historic hangers on. It's a great shame that the event, and indeed the museum, weren't better attended, but then I guess most modern families would rather spend their weekends in the high street battlezone instead. They're missing out. And one day I really must thank my great-grandfather for inspiring me to pay a visit to his most fascinating workplace.

Royal Gunpowder Mills (reopens next spring)
Five flickr photos of the re-enacted battle
The Gunpowder 400 Trail (UK-wide)

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